Fifty years ago, in April of 1968, the majority of the small retail stores, and the wholesale businesses that supplied them, were owned by Jews. There were several reasons for this. First and foremost was the bigotry that limited their numbers in the professional ranks and in the larger national chain stores. That left the grocery and liquor stores, which were the smallest and cheapest businesses to buy. For many Jews, to be in business for themselves was seen as the way to control their own destiny and have the best chance of success. Second was the economic reality that it didn’t take a lot of money to open a store. A month’s rent, some money for merchandise, and you were open for business.
Most important was one quality that the owner needed in great abundance: the willingness to work long and hard hours, many times seven days a week. Many sought financial stability that would result in their children being able to achieve professional and educational success in ways they could not. The stores became a focal point in the community. This was not lost on the store owners. They gave credit, carrying people who might otherwise not have been able to feed their families, until they could pay. From their neighborhoods, they hired many African Americans to work in the stores, when many other jobs were closed to them.
In the late 1920s, Jewish grocers formed the District Grocery Stores co-op. They bought as a group, getting better pricing for the merchandise they purchased. By 1968, over 300 stores were members. But by then, many neighborhoods had become run down and crime soared. The dream of owning one’s own business became a nightmare. The stores were robbed constantly. Their customer base began to erode, as more and more stable families left for the suburbs. But nothing could prepare them for the riots that exploded 50 years ago after the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
As the smoke cleared and the fires burned themselves out, the Jewish merchants were sickened and stunned by what had befallen them. In many cases, they watched helplessly as their stores were looted and burned. The police were overwhelmed and were unable to maintain control. By the time the Army arrived it was too late. The merchants felt that they had been abandoned. Many Holocaust survivors owned stores and for them it brought back horrible memories.
Storeowners basically fell into three categories: those whose stores were destroyed, those whose stores were damaged, and those whose stores were unscathed. For those whose stores were destroyed, there was no going back. It was a matter of salvaging what could be saved and trying to rebuild their lives somewhere else. For some, it would take years. Many took whatever work they could to keep food on the table. Some worked two and three jobs, taking whatever they could find, even the most menial jobs. And for some, that situation would continue for the rest of their working lives.
For those whose stores were looted, there was the ability to re-open once things settled down. But it was never the same: The good feelings and sense of community that had once existed were gone. Now it was a day-to-day struggle simply to support their families, in areas that became increasingly worse.
This was also the case for those whose stores were undamaged. The wholesalers, especially those in the Union Market on Florida Avenue, lost much of their customer base as well. The times had changed and even for them, the handwriting was on the wall. An era had ended and it was time to get out and move on, especially east of Rock Creek Park. The District Grocery Stores co-op disbanded in 1972.
All through the 1970s and into the 1980s, store after store was sold, in many cases to Korean and African immigrants, the new generation making their way in America. Today, the Jews have almost no presence in the retail business in Washington. Another facet of the cataclysmic change that occurred 50 years ago.
NEXT TIME: “Fifty Years Later: A Look Back, Part Three — The Shuls and the Schools”
By Larry Shor